Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier
Kingston Congregational Church
March 7, 2021
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For about twenty-five years now a unique and important act of defiant memory has been emerging in streets across Europe, originating in Germany:
Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones” in English. They are relatively small and 1
powerfully simple commemorative plaques embedded into the cobblestone
sidewalks outside the last known, freely chosen residence of those who perished
in the Holocaust. The brass plaques, no bigger than the cobblestones that
surround them, bear the name, birthdate and fate of the individuals taken from
the adjacent homes. There might be one or two in front of this house, a family
cluster in front of that one, or several dozen, as is the case outside a former
Jewish orphanage in Hamburg. The stumbling stones are so simple and so
distressing in their insistence on remembering the ordinary lives of those who
were taken: the street corners they played on, the stairs they climbed, the
homes they occupied. The stumbling stones trip up our human tendency to
forget that great human tragedies and atrocities are comprised of a hundred, a
thousand, millions of very individual, very particular losses, devastating in their
ordinariness as well as their scale. The stumbling stones interrupt the day-to-day
routines of commuters, tourists and citizens who otherwise might forget the full
story that lives in the stones on which they stand.
I would like to make a comparison between the stolpersteine, the
stumbling stones, and John’s gospel story of Jesus clearing the Temple. John
places the story of Jesus forcibly disrupting the everyday routines of Jerusalem’s
religious life, right up front in his telling of the good news. All four gospel writers
include this difficult story in their gospels; that right there should catch our
attention. But whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke place this story at the end of
their books, part of their narration of Holy Week, John puts it right up front,
chapter two, making it only the second public act of Jesus’ ministry. According
to John, right after Jesus turns water to wine at a family wedding in the small
town of Cana, he treks down to Jerusalem, in the middle of preparations for
Passover, the most important religious holiday of the year, fashions himself a whip
and drives out all the animals from the temple courtyard, turning over the tables
of the moneychangers and scattering the coins of the merchants. From the getgo in John’s gospel, Jesus is a narrative changer, a disrupter, a stumbling stone.
Just a chapter ago, we were blithely moving through John’s lovely and poetic
prologue (“In the beginning was the Word…”), enjoying the lyrical prose of
chapter one, (“and from his fullness we have received grace upon grace…”),
pausing for a moment to gather a few disciples, and then waltzing over to Cana
for what ends up being a well-provisioned wedding, when (boom!) we’re rudely
thrust into this scene of holy pandemonium. It’s like John opens the door for us
into his gospel and we immediately stumbl3 over the threshold. By putting this
disruptive story right up front, John is very clear, just as Jesus is very clear: this is no
longer business as usual. When Jesus, the Word made flesh, comes on the scene,
tables will turn, feathers will fly, and our lives will be blessedly disturbed.
Paul told us he’d be a stumbling block and a consternation―him, his cross
and his resurrection, which he alludes to here (“Destroy this temple and in three
days I will raise it up.”) They all thought he was talking about a building made
out of stones. But he was talking about himself, he was talking about a new
revelation of God’s love and compassion, a new word of grace and truth.
Startling in its freshness, a word that turns the tables on our routine packaging of
the holy and demands we pay attention.
It’s so easy, maybe it’s just human nature, to stop noticing. Stop seeing.
Stop keeping our eyes wide open to… all of this! This world, fraught with beauty
and heartache, stunningly ordinary and precious. If we kept our eyes and hearts
open to it all, it would flood our senses like a torrent of new wine, and turn over
our tables where most days we’re content to simply do our work, buy and sell
and count our coins. But Jesus came to astound us with the fullness of God,
grace upon grace, no longer (if ever) restricted to one location, four walls and a
roof, routine sacrifices and commodified holiness. John is clear: if you’ve seen
Jesus, you’ve seen God; and once you’ve seen God, you’ll never see things the
same. Unless you fall back asleep. Unless you shut your eyes and your heart,
sleepwalk through life, all while extraordinary beauty and exquisite pain are right
under our feet, and God is living in those stones.
Matthew, Mark and Luke use this story that they share with John to help
explain why Jesus was such a threat to the powers that be, fomenting unrest as
well as adulation that last week of his life. John puts this story right up front so
that we won’t sleepwalk our way through the best news ever, we’ll be shaken
up from the start, blessedly disturbed and salvifically woken up to the Word that
has been there from the beginning and is now fully present with us. When we
pay attention, see the world through eyes of love and mercy, the way God
foolishly sees and love it, we’ll see that everywhere we look there he is, his cross
and his resurrection, exquisite pain and extraordinary beauty, right here, all
around us, and when we see it―really see it, let it trip us up and fall to our
knees―we have seen God.
Jesus certainly came to comfort us in our pain, heal our wounds and
shelter us in his flock. But Jesus also came to challenge us to open our eyes to
the grief and beauty of this world, to snap out of our stupor and see God right
here, right now, living among us, Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, life
and light. And seeing that Light, a light that even the deepest darkness cannot
quench (and it has tried), we cannot stay the same. We have stumbled upon
heaven here on earth. Our tables are turned and we, like the doves and the
sheep, have been set free.
The gospel writer John takes this story that the others save for the end and
puts it right up front. May we not wait till the end of our lives, or some imagined
better future, or the proverbial rainy day, to open our eyes and take in this
blessed and disturbing good news: God is with us, fearfully, wonderfully with us.
John wants us to know, it is no longer business as usual. The mercy of God has
arrived to disturb and save you.